Osama bin Laden’s son was being groomed to be new leader of group responsible for 9/11
Jason Burke – The Guardian
For most of the decade that followed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, hardly a day passed without news about al-Qaida. In the last year, by contrast, the Guardian has mentioned the group 11 times.
The event that has put it back in the spotlight is not a terrorist strike against the “Crusader-Zionist alliance” or the “hypocrite, apostate regimes” of the Middle East but the death of a high-profile member.
Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama bin Laden, was being groomed as a future leader of the group and most probably died in a US drone strike, possibly somewhere in the rugged borderlands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, two or more years ago.
This zone was the epicentre of jihadist violence between the late 1990s and the final years of the last decade. Since then the epicentre has been Iraq and Syria, though significant numbers of people have died in Islamic extremist attacks elsewhere.
Analysts are divided on the significance of Hamza within al-Qaida, which for the last eight years has been led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a veteran Egyptian militant and close associate of Osama.
Hamza, 30, had very limited experience as an organiser, propagandist, strategist and fighter, all roles that the head of al-Qaida might be expected to fulfil. As jihadist royalty however, the “lion ’s son” would have had a credibility and power to inspire that others might lack.
Zawahiri, a dour 65-year-old, is notably uncharismatic and has had trouble adapting to new styles of communication pioneered to great effect by al-Qaida’s great rivals Islamic State.
It is unclear in which direction Hamza bin Laden, or perhaps those more senior and experienced men most closely associated with his potential leadership role, would have taken the organisation.
One reason we have heard so little about al-Qaida in recent years is because Isis has consumed more attention. Another is that Zawahiri has deliberately chosen not to attack the west and western interests around the world, instead focusing on building up a powerful presence through affiliated groups in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and across the Sahel.
This decentralised approach has been combined with an effort to win over communities through alliances with key powerbrokers such as tribal leaders, elders, clerics and warlords on the ground.
There have been numerous setbacks but almost three decades after its foundation, despite vast resources committed to its destruction, al-Qaida “remains resilient”, the United Nations concluded in a report published this week.
If Hamza’s death is primarily a symbolic achievement, it does further degrade the dynastic element within al-Qaida. The three of Osama’s many sons who might have led the group are now dead and it seems unlikely another will emerge. The children of Hamza are very young and at least one of his sons may have already been killed.
Analysts and officials once spoke about there being three elements to al-Qaida: the central leadership, affiliated groups around the Islamic world and the ideology, which motivated and mobilised freelance attackers.
The top tier of commanders in al-Qaida are ageing. With Hamza gone and no obvious younger figures who could play a unifying role, it is possible that the central leadership could disappear in a few years.
The affiliates are likely to thrive however, and the ideology shows no sign of fading, with Isis being the main vehicle for its propagation.